The Garage Mindset: How tech giants keep the innovation spirit alive

tl:dr West Coast companies often start in a garage. As they grow, they prefer playful environments, rather than methods or tools, to scale the “Garage Mindset” and keep their employees experimenting with ideas.


California is often said to have two beating hearts: culture in the South, around Los Angeles and Hollywood, and technology in the North around San Francisco and the Silicon Valley.

Their complementarity is key to the region’s success, and has generated widely popular combinations such as Netflix or Apple Music. And of course, they both rely on heavy doses of innovation.

It’s no coincidence that they were both born in a garage.

Disney was one of the early pioneers of the motion picture and music industry in California, and the celebrated inventor of theme parks. Yet, he referred to his uncle’s garage in Orange County, ten minutes away from the current location of Disneyland, as his first studio.

Hewlett and Packard are considered to be the founders of the tech industry in the North, and also started in a garage close to Stanford, dubbed the birthplace of Silicon Valley. They developed their first product there, an audio oscillator… that Disney leveraged to improve the sound quality of his 1940 musical cartoon Fantasia!

The two hearts of California had started beating together.

David Packard’s garage in Palo Alto, dubbed “the birthplace of the Silicon Valley”. © BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons

Freedom to Innovate

Countless West Coast companies were born in a garage, among which corporate giants such as Mattel or Nike. But it’s particularly true for the tech industry, with an impressive line-up of iconic logos such as Microsoft, Dell, Amazon, Apple and Google all claiming humble garage beginnings.

The garage legend has become such a meme that the Silicon Valley Series turned it into one of its most memorable scenes, with tech guru Gavin Belson, founder and CEO of Hooli, showing the start-uppers from Pied Piper his garage in a garage: “this is where it all began…”

Why the garage? An element is certainly the cost, especially in a region where teachers live in their cars and upper middle class workers park their Tesla in trailer parks. But another is the mindset. To quote Gavin Belson, once again: “We must remain focused on what’s really important, not material success or wealth but THIS. The spirit of innovation, some ramen and a dream!”

The garage is where most Americans have their tool sheds and tinker with cars and computers. It’s also a place where legacy, politics, time constraints and corporate rules fly through the window, which is the essence of Packard’s very innovative management style, also conveniently called the Rules of the Garage.

The garage means freedom to innovate.

But is this replicable at scale within a large organization? How can the garage mindset remain alive when the garage gets so much bigger? Interestingly, a number of tech companies have taken a shot at answering this question, and they all rely on the same principles.

Environment before method

Research has shown time and again that we are primed by our environment. Looking at trees makes us walk slower, sitting on a solid chair makes us think relationships are more stable and washing our hands also gives us a clean conscience. So it is quite natural to believe that the appropriate setting should influence our thought process and stimulate innovation.

The environment also influences our behavior. This is obvious for instance in weight management. Rather than complex methods, which are bound to fail, the University of California recommends to control the environment at home, at work and in the mealtime in order to shed pounds. And my wife agrees.

The same applies for innovation: Crafting the environment is far more efficient to elicit innovation friendly behaviors than teaching managers the complex rules of Triz or Six Sigma, or even the simple ones of Brainstorming. This is not to say they are not useful, but they come second – if at all.

Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin met at Stanford and make sure their freshly graduated employees (whose average age is 29) feel they are still at the University. For this, they set the stage with colorful bikes, lounge chairs and walking paths which bear a striking resemblance to Stanford’s Palo Alto Campus, except maybe for the dinosaur skeletons and Android statues.

Amazon is famous for its biosphere domes in Seattle, housing more than 300 endangered species of plants and where employees can “climb into meeting spaces resembling bird nests perched in mature trees”. Which makes every contender for their second headquarters wonder, “What would our version of the spheres be?”

The Workspace Reinvented

In 2016, Amazon has grown 27% YoY, Alphabet 24% and Facebook a whopping 54%! Quite simply, it has never been seen before in the history of mankind that companies so huge would grow so fast. These are usually the growth figures of small to mid-size aggressive contenders, not of incumbents who already top the global market capitalization podium.

The effort to keep an entrepreneurial mindset at scale is at the heart of the West Coast culture, and an important element to understand these amazing growth figures. Everyone’s head and heart should still be in the garage, and this cultural stance has lead to a continuous and massive overhaul of the corporate workspace.

Three dimensions are favored by the architects: collaboration, playfulness and experimentation.

Collaboration is first and foremost at Google. Employees meet and socialize in volleyball and basketball courts, or fully decorated living rooms in-between offices. They share ideas in micro-kitchens at every floor of every office in the world and can engage remotely with open access videoconference booths everywhere.

David Radcliffe, Vice President of Google’s Real Estate & Workplace Services explains in an interview: “Casual collisions are what we try and create in the work environment. You can’t schedule innovation, you can’t schedule idea generation and so when we think our facilities around the world we’re really looking for little opportunities for engineers or for creative people to come together.”

One of Google’s microkitchens. Photo by Peter Wurmli

Facebook offices are famous for their huge gaming rooms ranging from pinball to virtual reality booths, which inspire employees to keep playing within and with the rules of social media. This playful approach is celebrated as the Hacker Way and illustrated both internally with the hackathons and externally with the Hacker Cup.

Experimentation is the key to trial and error improvements, another essential trait of the garage mindset. Don’t wait until you have a good solution, but come up instead with any scrappy idea, learn from its implementation and improve it by small continuous increments.

A striking example of this is the Amazon Go store, where employees currently beta-testing the concept enter, grab things and simply go without any line or check-out, thanks to a combination of computer vision and machine learning. This real life experimentation of the future of retail quietly seats in a street corner of Seattle and learns everyday from its mistakes until you can expect it to change your lives. Or be another celebrated failure!

And the good news is that none of this relies on unique differentiators or patented technologies. Every company in the world can work on its environment and workspace to emulate innovation. Better yet, every manager can improve her team’s setup to foster the Garage Mindset, without the need for complex procedures or approvals.

Care to try? Then just do it, and welcome to the garage.


The Garage Mindset – Illustration by Dimitri Champain

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